Mental Illness in the Library Workplace
By Carole Thompson
Anyone who’s worked in or around libraries for a while knows that they can be home to persons with truly eccentric personalities. But what if a colleague or patron’s behavior exceeds the eccentric? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that mental disorders can affect up to 48 percent of us at some point in our lives. In times when stresses are increasing, whether they come from economic, professional or personal sources, fragile people are even more likely to move beyond reasonable boundaries into a compromised state of mind. Being sensitive to your colleague’s state and familiar with some typical symptoms or behaviors can not only help them, but everyone around them who may suffer when the problematic behavior affects the workplace and, likely, employee productivity.
Symptoms may be hard to recognize or understand. After all, we’re librarians, not therapists. We’re not trained to identify, diagnose or treat a lapsed state. Can we tell the difference between growing depression and a series of bad days? We may observe the near-hysterical manic state of a person with bipolar disorder and not realize how seriously ill the person really is. Several years ago, a colleague’s otherwise quirky and confusing behavior was explained when she leaned in close and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you right now. The voices are too loud.” Often, symptoms include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, indecision, irritability, anxiety, sadness, inappropriately severe reactions, panic attacks or delusional episodes. These people are ill, and they need to be treated with understanding.
Keep in mind those who may be affected adversely by the disturbed person. Some people may not be equipped to deal with the erratic or illogical behavior of others. Many times, co-workers may experience emotions such as frustration, anger or confusion because they don’t recognize or can’t cope with an irrational individual. The disruption in the workplace, in effect, causes a hostile environment. Many may suffer, not just a supervisor who must deal with complaints and problems, but also any member of the workforce who must spend otherwise valuable time drawn into the incidents or who relieve their emotional distress by discussing the problem.
One way to help everyone is to work with your organization to promote health, physical, emotional and mental health. There are low and no-cost ways of introducing stress management interventions in the workplace to offset difficult situations or times. You may be able to initiate a non-judgmental and confidential discussion with the person at risk to inquire about your observations concerning changes in their performance or behavior, and offer resources to assist them. Consult with your Human Resources staff. They are versed in dealing with all manner of problems, including mental illness, are familiar with typical behaviors and generally know of resources and referrals available in the organization or community. Many institutions have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and the ability to mandate a referral for someone who may resist but desperately need assistance, or provide counseling to those who may be dealing with this difficult problem.
Carole Thompson is Library Director at Texas A&M University at Qatar. Thompson has worked in a variety of public and private academic libraries in California and Qatar, in technical, public and administrative positions.
- Sing, M., Hill, S., & Puffer, L. 2001. Improving mental health insurance benefits without increasing cost. DHHS Publication. No. SMA 01-3542. Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/publications/allpubs/SMA-01-3542/SMA01-3542ch3.asp.
- British Occupational Health Research Foundation. 2005. Workplace interventions for people with common mental health problems: evidence review and recommendations. <http://www.bohrf.org.uk/downloads/cmh_rev.pdf>.
- JobAccessAdvisor. 2009. Australian Govertnment Department of Educaiton, Employment and Workplace Relations. Mental health – how to support an employee when they experience symptoms of mental illness. January 19. http://jobaccess.gov.au/Employers/Supporting_and_retaining_staff/Mental_health_How_to_support_an_employee_who_becomes_unwell_with_mental_illness/Pages/home.aspx
Online Resources on Mental Illness:
- The Center for Mental Health Services: http://www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/cmhs/
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org
- National Mental Health Association: http://www.nmha.org/
- American Psychological Association: www.apa.org
- National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nih.gov
We would love to have your feedback on this article(s)!
Posted in Work/Life |
50 E. Huron St.
Chicago, IL 60611-2795
Toll Free TDD: